TL;DR Making a list of your personal values (aka core values) takes 15 minutes and will help you make better decisions.
Have you ever been faced with a difficult decision and not known which direction to take?
Have you ever spent days or weeks or months going back and forth on a decision? You start with “Yes I will do it,” then “no I won’t,” then back to “yes I will.”
Assuming you’re human, the answer to either of those questions is “yes.”
So how do you decide what to say yes to? And what to say no to?
You need to have a list of personal values to refer to.
A Personal Values Definition
What are personal values? Personal values (sometimes called core values) are broad concepts that can be applied over and over again across a range of circumstances, as opposed to narrow answers to specific questions.
Your core values are what you consider most important in your life, literally what you “value.”
Whether you are conscious of them or not, you have values for every part of your life — parenting values, investing values, work values, and health values. There are also more overarching life values.
An example of a value would be:
Self-development: to keep growing, advancing, or improving in knowledge, skills, character, or life experience
This value could help you answer questions like “Should I take a slightly higher paying job where I won’t learn as much, or a lower paying one where I will develop my skills a lot faster?”
All successful people have values that allow them to achieve their goals. If you don’t have values, you are just reacting to events that happen in your life without thinking about how to best react to them in a way that lines up with what’s important to you.
Having a List of Core Values Helps You Make Better Decisions
Most people have a bad taste in their mouth about core values because we typically hear about them in the context of companies that often blatantly disregard them.
Enron had a list of four core values including “integrity” and “communication,” which they talked about publicly, while behind the scenes they were actually lying and hiding information from their own employees and shareholders.
You’ve probably worked for a company that had a list of core values posted somewhere, but they didn’t seem to make any impact on the way the company was actually run.
But the truth is that creating a list of personal values is both useful and practical, because you can apply them directly to your own life. I make decisions based on my list every single week.
One of my core values is courage.
I discovered this was a core value for me, because I noticed a tendency in myself to pick projects that were not risky enough and have them fail as a result.
I would have the choice between two opportunities, and I would say “this one will almost certainly work, while the other one is a bit riskier, so I’ll do the easy one.”
Then I would start working on the project, and because it didn’t really stretch me, I would get bored or feel like I wasn’t reaching for what I was capable of. That would end with me quitting or doing subpar work.
In cases where I picked the seemingly riskier choice, I became very engaged in the project and while I was working on it, my capabilities grew to be able to actually do it well.
Picking the more courageous choice meant I was more likely to succeed and enjoy the process more.
By adopting courage as a core principle, I was able to identify that repeated failure pattern in myself and fix it. Given the choice between two opportunities, I now pick the one that is more courageous. I also make these decisions more quickly and efficiently than I did before.
If you aren’t conscious of this, you are likely to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Example: My Personal Values
So how do you put together a list of personal values? I’ll give some examples of personal values from my own life to help you get started in figuring out your own.
Some of them may be helpful to you, but others certainly won’t. I think the core values that are most valuable to each of us come from our own personal experience, not from being taught and accepting someone else’s.
My hope is that by reading through my list, you will get a sense for how a list of core values could be helpful in making better decisions.
- Agency: to choose how I live and behave and help others do likewise; to be self-supportive and choose my own way of doing things.
- Self-Development: to keep growing, advancing, or improving in knowledge, skills, character, or life experience.
- Courage: to be courageous or brave; to persist in the face of fear, threat, or difficulty; to take risks for others.
- Impact: to exert myself into the universe in a way I believe is important. I work for what I want, not what others want from me.
- Soul in the Game: I believe it is an ethical concern that I put my money and time where my mouth is, that I have no divorce between what I preach and my lifestyle. I believe the highest form of ethics is to take on risk for others.
- Reciprocity: to create more value than I capture.
How I Use My Personal Values
My personal values are very practical for me and I use them in two main ways.
First, I read over them every week as part of my weekly review. During my review, I reflect on the past week and make plans for the next week. In between reflecting and planning, I read through my core values document.
Second, I read them whenever I am struggling to make a big decision like moving cities or changing careers. Typically, reading through my core values list makes it obvious to me what the right answer is.
Over time, I find that I am getting better at internalizing the values and they express themselves subconsciously with smaller decisions, as well.
What if more than one choice lines up with your core values?
Sometimes a decision can go either way and both still match up with your core values. I was deciding between two books I wanted to write, and the truth is that both of them matched up with my core values.
In that sense, the decision didn’t matter. I could choose to write either book and I would still be in alignment with what matters most to me.
The decision then became more of a strategic question: Which of these books will sell more copies? Which will be most beneficial to my career? Which will I most enjoy writing?
However, the strategy question only comes after the values one.
Two Ways to Discover Your Personal Values
Most of us have values that we have adopted from other pre-packaged sources, like a religion, culture, or legal system. There’s nothing wrong with adopting values from somewhere else and often the values from these sources have incorporated a huge amount of wisdom.
However, by adopting a value system without much thought, it’s easy to hold personal values that lead to a conflict between what you say you believe and the actions you take. I’m sure you’ve met someone who says they believe in the tenets of a particular religious or spiritual tradition, but then they behave counter to its teachings.
So how do you discover your own core values?
1. Having and reflecting on life experiences
The best way to find your values is often through making mistakes and violating them. Good judgment comes from experience and you usually get that experience by making bad judgments.
One of the values I recently added to my list was:
Impact: to exert myself into the universe in a way that I believe is important. I work for what I want, not what others want from me.
This may sound egotistical and you may disagree with it. That’s totally fine.
Over a period of two years, I noticed that when I worked on projects that other people told me I should work on, I wasn’t really excited to be working on them. This meant I did poor quality work, and the project ended up not being very good for my own career or for my customers.
However, when I worked on projects that I believed were really important, even when other people thought they weren’t the best idea, I worked incredibly hard and talked about them passionately, which inspired others to help me. These projects ended up being more successful and helping more people.
So for me, the counterintuitive truth was that by working for what I want and not for what others want, I did more to help other people, which is also one of my values.
2. Hearing someone else clearly express a deeply held belief of mine
The other way I discover my personal values is by hearing someone express a deeply held belief of mine that I did not have the words to articulate.
One of my values is that “I have soul in the game.”
This is a term inspired by a phrase used in The Black Swan that immediately resonated with me. The book explains that having “skin in the game” means you are responsible for the consequences of your actions. Entrepreneurs have skin in the game because if they make a decision and the company tanks, they bear the weight of those consequences.
Having soul in the game is going a step further: taking on risk for others. Think of a whistleblower who speaks out at the risk of destroying their own career.
I’d never had a clear way to put it into words until I read the book, but this resonated with me so much that I added it to my list of
How to Make Your First List of Personal Values in Less Than 15 Minutes
1. Look through this list of examples of personal values and pick five that resonate with you.
The first time you put together a list of core values, it’s easiest to start from an existing list.
Over time, you can reflect and add or modify these based on your personal experiences, or if you read or hear something that you find resonates with you. Remember that there are no objectively “right” or “wrong” answers.
Look through this list of personal values and make a note of each one that resonates with you by writing it down. Write down at least 10.
If you’d like to download this list to print off or save, you can click here.
- Acceptance: to be open to and accepting of myself, others, life, etc.
- Adventure: to be adventurous; to actively seek, create, or explore novel or stimulating experiences
- Assertiveness: to respectfully stand up for my rights and request what I want
- Authenticity: to be authentic, genuine, and real; to be true to myself
- Beauty: to appreciate, create, nurture, or cultivate beauty in myself, others, the environment, etc.
- Caring: to be caring toward myself, others, the environment, etc.
- Challenge: to keep challenging myself to grow, learn, and improve
- Compassion: to act with kindness toward those who are suffering
- Conformity: to be respectful and obedient of rules and obligations
- Connection: to engage fully in whatever I am doing, and be fully present with others
- Contribution: to contribute, help, assist, or make a positive difference to myself or others
- Cooperation: to be cooperative and collaborative with others
- Courage: to be courageous or brave; to persist in the face of fear, threat, or difficulty
- Creativity: to be creative or innovative
- Curiosity: to be curious, open-minded, and interested; to explore and discover
- Encouragement: to encourage and reward behavior that I value in myself or others
- Equality: to treat others as equal to myself, and vice versa
- Excitement: to seek, create, and engage in activities that are exciting, stimulating, or thrilling
- Fairness: to be fair to myself or others
- Fitness: to maintain or improve my fitness; to look after my physical and mental health and well-being
- Flexibility: to adjust and adapt readily to changing circumstances
- Forgiveness: to be forgiving toward myself or others
- Freedom: to live freely; to choose how I live and behave, or help others do likewise
- Friendliness: to be friendly, companionable, or agreeable toward others
- Fun: to be fun-loving; to seek, create, and engage in fun-filled activities
- Generosity: to be generous, sharing, and giving, to myself or others
- Gratitude: to be grateful for and appreciative of the positive aspects of myself, others, and life
- Honesty: to be honest, truthful, and sincere with myself and others
- Humility: to be humble or modest; to let my achievements speak for themselves
- Humor: to see and appreciate the humorous side of life
- Independence: to be self-supportive, and choose my own way of doing things
- Industry: to be industrious, hard-working, and dedicated
- Intimacy: to open up, reveal, and share myself — emotionally or physically — in my close personal relationships
- Justice: to uphold justice and fairness
- Kindness: to be kind, compassionate, considerate, nurturing, or caring toward myself or others
- Love: to act lovingly or affectionately toward myself or others
- Mindfulness: to be conscious of, open to, and curious about my here-and-now experience
- Open-mindedness: to think things through, see things from others’ points of view, and weigh evidence fairly
- Order: to be orderly and organized
- Patience: to wait calmly for what I want
- Persistence: to continue resolutely, despite problems or difficulties
- Pleasure: to create and give pleasure to myself or others
- Power: to strongly influence or wield authority over others, e.g., taking charge, leading, organizing
- Reciprocity: to build relationships in which there is a fair balance of giving and taking
- Respect: to be respectful toward myself or others; to be polite, be considerate, and show positive regard
- Responsibility: to be responsible and accountable for my actions
- Romance: to be romantic; to display and express love or strong affection
- Safety: to secure, protect, or ensure safety of myself or others
- Self-awareness: to be aware of my own thoughts, feelings, and actions
- Self-care: to look after my health and well-being, and get my needs met
- Self-control: to act in accordance with my own ideals
- Self-development: to keep growing, advancing, or improving in knowledge, skills, character, or life experience.
- Sensuality: to create, explore, and enjoy experiences that stimulate the five senses
- Sexuality: to explore or express my sexuality
- Skillfulness: to continually practice and improve my skills, and apply myself fully when using them
- Spirituality: to connect with things bigger than myself
- Supportiveness: to be supportive, helpful, encouraging, and available to myself or others
- Trust: to be trustworthy; to be loyal, faithful, sincere, and reliable
- Insert your own value here.1
Next, go through the ones you wrote down and list them from most important to least important.
2. Save the Top 5 values on your list someplace where you can look at them and update them.
I keep my values in an Evernote note where I can easily look at them and modify them.
Your values are always changing and you’re also getting a better idea of what you value. I used to value novelty a lot — new experiences and new people. For a period of my life, that really was a core value and I prioritized my life around it. In the last few years, though, I’ve come to value spending time getting to know the people already in my life more than meeting new people and seeing new places, so I took it off my list.
The terms on the list above are just a starting point and not an exhaustive list. You also want to try and pick terms that emotionally resonate with you. The phrase “soul in the game” probably doesn’t mean anything to you, but it means a lot to me. Whenever I hear something that really resonates with me, I will add it to my list.
3. Look at them regularly.
Now that you have a list of values, you want to put it to work. Pick a time when you can regularly review them. If you have a time in your week, month, or year where you regularly do any sort of planning, reviewing your core values is a good activity to tack on. Regularly looking over them keeps them fresh in your mind and lets you make decisions that align with your values.
I look at mine every Saturday morning, which is when I do my weekly review and planning.
There was a study done in the 1990s by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of “Flow,” where different professionals were studied to see which ones were happy and productive and which were unhappy and unproductive. The most important factor was alignment with personal values.
The happiest, most productive profession was geneticists because all parties involved respected the best science. Even though pharmaceutical companies were injecting a lot of money into the field, geneticists believed doing the very best science on a day-to-day basis led to more benefits for the general public, the pharmaceutical companies, their universities, and themselves — the work they were doing was in alignment with their core values.
The least happy, and least productive profession was journalism. Most journalists had entered the field with high ideals about truth, making a difference, and the free press. But the decline of the family-run newspaper and rise of corporate media empires made journalism a profit center where all that mattered was sales, which meant good journalism was bad for business and was replaced by scare stories, exaggeration, and scandal. Their values did not align with their day-to-day work.
A follow-up study done by McGregor and Little in 19982 found that meaningfulness of individuals’ personal projects depended on how consistent they were with core aspects of self and identity — in other words, their core values.
The happiest and most productive people were taking daily actions in line with their core values.
This gives them a constant sense of motivation, because they see how the work they are doing today leads to a long-term vision that they find meaningful.
Your personal values are specific to you and a result of your own life experiences. You can discover and refine your values through life experience or encountering ideas that resonate with you.
Having a written list of your personal values will help you make better decisions.
Want a step-by-step guide to finding your personal values for the first time?
Acknowledgment: Ray Dalio.